How a trans teacher showed adults have more hang-ups about gender than primary school kids

Writing for NS Trans Issues Week, Jane Fae explains why the "think of the children" reaction to transness is just a technique for concealing overt prejudice.

Gender re-assignment? The trans-friendly workplace? Even - heaven forfend! – a transsexual primary school teacher? Move along: nothing to see here. For we have come a long way in the past couple of decades, and what was once seen as weird, perverse even, is now commonplace.

You know progress has been made, when Richard Littlejohn, scourge of the politically correct, can be found writing relatively encouragingly about such matters. But. Ah yes: there’s always a but. While transphobia has become increasingly unacceptable, there remains that last line of reactionary defence: “just think of the children”.

Which is why, after a relatively benign few pars on the recent announcement that primary school teacher Nathan Upton is en route to a new life as Miss Meadows, Littlejohn joins the small gang of bullying parents complaining that their little darlings are “worried and confused”, arguing: “Children as young as seven aren’t equipped to compute this kind of information”. Thus: “Nathan Upton’s not only in the wrong body: he’s in the wrong job” (see the editor's note at the bottom of this article).

That’s so seductive – and equally, so wrong. How do I know? Perhaps the fact that my own transition began shortly before our son turned five. A couple of raised eyebrows at the local primary – mostly, I suspect, at my awful early experiments in nail polish – turned quickly to welcome and support.

There was bullying, mostly from senior boys, who seemed to equate transness with “being gay”, though that has now mostly ended. Otherwise, not much confusion. Because, of course, when you explain this sort of thing to primary school children, you don’t need to provide detailed biological explanations. Jane was born in the wrong body: she’s putting that right. Simple.

The real problems have come from the grown-ups – almost invariably young men – who think a trans woman alone on the street is fair game for abuse, verbal or otherwise. The intimidation diminishes: it never goes away entirely.

Twice, my son has witnessed physical threats against myself and, on one occasion, his mother as well. Most recently, and without any sense of irony, the bully who threatened to punch me in full view of the young boy claimed to be doing so “to protect children”.

Where have we heard that before? Ah yes: there was the supposedly radical drama group who felt it better for me to take a sabbatical “because parents of other young actors might not understand”. Weirdest of all, the children’s activity group that suggested I stop helping because “were I to be threatened or attacked in front of the children, it might upset them”.

Huh?

There is a common thread here – one that I seem to share with Miss Meadows and the parents of trans school children: no-one objects to US. But can’t we see how confusing/disturbing/upsetting this is for the children?

Well, no. I have yet to meet a primary school child that has done other than express naïve curiosity about my journey. In part, this is the same issue as afflicts ALL sex ed, as well as ed that merely touches on sex. Parents don’t know how to talk about topics “appropriately”, don’t understand that information can be imparted in ways that make sense to six and seven year olds without blowing their minds. Making babies? A man puts his seed inside a lady... Being gay? Sometimes two boys or two girls can love each other…

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Some of the parental angst is genuine: things weren’t like this “in their day”. They don’t know how to cope with basic questions. Still, there’s something else. It’s the same torrid mess of fear and projection that leads one parent to speak out against sex ed for showing cartoons of people “doing it” and shocked that “there was a white girl and a coloured man” (a genuine contribution to a session hosted by Safer Media). Or that it’s OK to be gay, but…you wouldn’t want “one of them” teaching your children.

It’s fear of normalisation, even though one of the biggest of burdens for the gay, trans or in any way different child is feeling alone and unusual, while knowing that there are others like them is blessed relief.

It’s projection, too. Because the single biggest source of danger to women, children, and minorities are young men, who see the world refracted through their own crude sexuality. So transness MUST be about sex – and therefore the trans teacher MUST be dangerous.

It’s about cowardice. Because as the world learns to tolerate otherness, it is no longer acceptable to be outwardly bigoted. So someone else’s well-being, someone else’s safety must be co-opted to the cause. I don’t object to trans folk, writes Littlejohn, but…

I’ve nothing against them, opines a parent, but…

Don’t believe a word of it. These are not friends of children, but exploiters – and behind that “but” it's bigoted business as usual.

Editor's note: On 21 March 2013 it was reported that Lucy Meadows had died. The reference to her was removed from the Daily Mail article linked to above, but can still be read in the web archive version of it here

Children are often far better at dealing with transness than adults. Photograph: Getty Images

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

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I somehow feel very different this year, waving my teenager off to Pride

I thought times had changed, and was glad – then Orlando hit me like a smack in the face.

When I guest-edited Radio 4’s Today programme a couple of years ago, one of my chosen topics was young people and the internet, and specifically the way in which it can be such a positive force for gay teens who are coming to understand themselves and to find friends and allies. This item was entirely inspired by my own teenager, who came out at the age of 15, and had already found an online community of help, support and friendship.

Back when I was a teenager, I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Well, of course I did, but didn’t know it. My friend had a boyfriend with whom things never quite worked out, and when he came out years later it all made sense. We didn’t talk about it or wonder about it at the time. We sang “Glad to Be Gay” and thought we were cool and we knew nothing.

My kids, on the other hand, know everything, and they’ve taught me so much, mostly in terms of theory and terminology. I’d still thought I was cool but it turned out that in fact I was 53 and out of date, and they dragged me cheerfully into the second decade of the 21st century, blinking, dusting myself down.

The whole experience was a happy one, on both sides. A teenager who came out into a welcoming family. A brief, teary hug, because I hadn’t instinctively known (“God, Mum, your gaydar is crap”), and laughter at the clues I’d missed (“All that watching Eurovision together, Mum – did you still not guess?”). It wasn’t that I didn’t think any of my kids might be gay: just that I was still being a mum and not realising they’d stopped being kids.

Back in 2007 I wrote a song called “A-Z”, about gay teens being bullied at school, a kind of retelling of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”, which I’d always adored. But then my own teen wasn’t bullied at school, and was happily out there, and everyone was cool, and I thought, “This is fantastic. What a time to be alive.” A crowd of them – gay, straight, bi – went off to Pride, wrapped in flags and with rainbows painted on their faces, and we took photos and celebrated, and again I thought, “What a time to be alive. Hurrah for Now.”

But then Orlando. Oh God, Orlando, which hit me smack in the face, left me shattered and weeping, feeling stupid for not remembering that there were still people out there who might want to harm my beautiful, clever, funny, science-loving, Ru Paul-loving child. Had we been living in a dream? Were we wrong to do so? We’d just been enjoying the good news, that’s all. The increasing freedom and equal rights. The taking of simple things for granted, like being able to marry and have kids. Just ordinariness – nothing anyone should have to feel grateful for.

How we can both know and not know things. How our longing for change lulls us into believing change has come. Of course I knew there was still a way to go. But there’s knowing and not knowing. There’s knowing something cerebrally, and knowing it viscerally. Love makes you strong and it makes you vulnerable. The people you love are the gap in your armour where the blade gets in, and Orlando was quite some blade.

“Four dead in Ohio,” sang Neil Young, in a plaintive lament for the students killed at Kent State University back in 1970. And the tune keeps coming into my head, with different words. Fifty dead in Orlando. Those text messages sent from the bathroom at the Pulse nightclub, what was it one of them said? “Mommy . . . Trapp in bathroom . . . I’m gonna die.” Mommy. That’s where the blade got in. And I wave my child – 18 now, an adult, but always my child – off to Pride for the third time, but in a different mood this year. Alert. Steely.

I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a book about same-sex marriage, non-binary gender identity, family, motherhood and, above all, love, and I come across this line: “Sometimes one has to know something many times over. Sometimes one forgets, and then remembers. And then forgets, and then remembers. And then forgets again.” I promise not to forget again.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies